Belfast Telegraph

Terrified Richard Branson thought he'd die in Limavady balloon disaster

By Claire McNeilly

Limavady has a new and unwanted claim to fame - as the location of one of the worst moments in Sir Richard Branson's life.

The townsfolk have never been slow to point out that billionaire Branson "landed" there in 1987 to complete the world's first transatlantic crossing in a hot air balloon.

But it has emerged that the mogul's memories of that foggy July day are far from pleasant.

In a new documentary the Virgin empire founder reveals that he was so sure he was going to die as the badly damaged balloon hurtled out of control that he scribbled out a goodbye note to his children.

"There was an enormous feeling of loneliness," the 66-year-old recalled.

"I'd had an extraordinary life and it looked like this was the last minutes of it. I wrote a note to the kids (daughter Holly, then six, and son Sam, two years old at the time), telling them how much I loved them."

Rather than "landing in Limavady, Northern Ireland", as the crash is euphemistically described on the Virgin website, the stricken Virgin Atlantic Flyer descended from 27,000 feet, gouged the ground, jettisoned two fuel tanks and narrowly missed a house and power lines before swooping back into the air and towards Rathlin Island.

It then started bouncing on the Atlantic, losing its flotation bags after an unsuccessful attempt to land on a beach on the island.

Co-pilot Per Lindstrad baled out, but the balloon started a steep ascent before Branson could follow.

After putting on an oxygen mask and writing the short note, the London-born entrepreneur prepared to parachute out, but instead piloted the craft back towards the water before throwing himself out from 60ft up.

Both men were later rescued by the Royal Navy.

These harrowing moments in the skies above Co Londonderry were captured in Don't Look Down, which uses never-before-seen footage Branson shot on his camcorder.

And although the intrepid duo were far too busy attempting to survive at the time, they later realised that their brief contact with Limavady meant that they had in fact made it into the record books.

A journey that had begun at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, USA, on July 2 had ended 31 hours and 41 minutes later, with the Virgin Atlantic Flyer having travelled over 3,000 miles.

Belfast Telegraph


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